Royal garden party meets gladiatorial amphitheatre… this is Wimbledon. Man to man combat between two of the most impressive examples of human athleticism, pitted against one another in an individual contest that can last more than twice as long as it takes to reduce teams of footballers to rubber legged husks of men ahead of penalty shoot-outs. All taking place in an environment furnished with prim protocols, in an atmosphere generated by audiences whose emotional range shifts from adoration to, at worst, respectful.
Not that there can be the slightest doubt as to where loyalties lie when their favourite sons and daughters are involved and yesterday’s anti-climactically one-sided men’s singles final was the perfect example.
“How many Cilic fans in here? Maybe 100,” was the rhetorical question posed and answered by the Israeli colleague alongside me as the match got underway in front of 15,000 people. We both suspect he exaggerated. The vast majority were there to see Roger Federer fulfil his destiny by adding statistical substance to style in winning the eighth title that separates him from Pete Sampras and William Renshaw atop the list of men’s singles winners. Any drama would not so much have been a bonus as a source of unnecessary worry.
Every early Federer error met with a collected gasp of dismay, upgraded to disquiet on more potentially important points. They knew he was up against a man who would not meekly accept his supporting role as the dispensable bad guy. When, then, in the fourth game and break point down a Federer first serve hit the net there was audible relief as Marin Cilic stepped in purposefully but put his return into the net. That perhaps amplified the first truly rapturous reception for a point as both men scraped balls off the turf , before Federer scrambled brilliantly to play a winner from outside the tramlines and move to 0-30 on his way to breaking the Croat’s serve for a first time.
Sadly, however, that was already the beginning of an end that had actually been signalled at the outset, Cilic’s left leg appearing to shake as he prepared to serve in the opening game, not as a result of nerves but due to a bad blister. His subsequent tears, on initially bringing the matter to the attention of officials after having his service broken again early in the second set, were clearly more related to frustration than pain that such a special day was being spoiled by what might otherwise be considered an relatively minor issue.
That, in turn, brought some additional warmth his way, not least because the audience realised he was unlikely to spoil their day. His refusal to quit until beaten was meanwhile a much better representation of what his sport is all about than the behaviour of those who had apparently played first round ties knowing they would not finish.
“That’s what I do my whole career. I never gave up when I started a match,” he told the Centre Court crowd before departing. It was a dignified end to a doomed challenge and one in keeping with both the honour code of a sport contested by warriors and the good form expected of visitors to this grandest of sporting venues.